My America, too
I didn’t plan to be heading south towards Charlottesville, Virginia after the alt-right demonstration this past August.
But I didn’t try to change my plans either.
I am possessed simultaneously with contradictory personal gifts. I am a profound chaos magnet, but also the recipient of amazing travel karma. This has been manifested throughout my life by allowing me to be smack dab in the midst of the most dramatic political upheavals on the planet without ever being hurt. From the fall of the Berlin Wall to the The Velvet Revolution; from the revolt in Chiapas to an Egyptian civil war; from a failed coup in Turkey to shelling in Jerusalem and dozens of other violent demonstrations; I have managed to circumnavigate a never ending vortex of political revolution without ever getting so much as a scratch.
I have never intentionally run towards conflict (except in my personal life) but armed struggle has managed to find me no matter where I travel to. It has sometimes seemed that no country is safe if I plan to visit. Placid cities will erupt into strikes or civil unrest, martial law or civil war will be declared, shelling will begin, walls will tumble and violent discord will ensue. At the very least there will be a garbage strike.
All that is required is for me to pass through customs.
I was told by my mother that when I was a small child, we were at Berkley during the political unrest of the late 60’s. I have no way to check the veracity of this statement anymore but I have a small child’s memory of helicopters landing, bright lights and very loud bullhorns. I don’t believe these memories were enhanced by her tendency to over dramatize literally everything. I do remember the rotor whoosh and spotlights tearing through flimsy curtains. I remember smoke and shouting. I also remember being completely unafraid. I think I’ve always known that I was going to be safe no matter what was being lobbed over my head.
So I didn’t plan to have political unrest be with me in the South this past August, but I certainly didn’t drive away when it happened. Something deep inside, for the first time in my life, wanted to be within the racial conflict which has existed in this country throughout our history. Something deep within me wanted to march and protest and scream defiantly that black lives do indeed matter to me. I wanted for the first time in my life, to be a body on the battleground. I didn’t want to be a bystander anymore, I wanted to fight. I also recognized at that moment that this was a conflict I had avoided for most of my life simply because I had the choice to do so.
Let me elaborate by adding that I am white woman, both middle aged and middle class, and there is absolutely nothing that screams “revolutionary” about me. If you saw me walk down the street you would think of your child’s fourth grade teacher or your Danish cousin, twice removed, who lives in Odense. There is nothing about me that says militant, or well versed in guerilla warfare. I am the pretty girl who grew up next door to you, and you ran into at Starbucks when you both were growing old. I am the person you ask to hold your baby while you are struggling with your cell phone app to pay for your coffee. I’m the woman that would pay for your coffee.
I’m that woman; safe, reliable, unthreatening, and redolent with white privilege.
There is something about being halfway through your life that makes you realize all the things you haven’t said or done yet. The point of aging that screams out loud during the dark and quiet nights, “You had better do this soon or you are going to have regrets.” I have risked nothing on the battle lines of racial injustice because I didn’t have to. In fact, I have always been a part of the baseline of privilege that kept systematic racism in place. Most white people don’t even know it is there. When you bring up the subject they are hostile, having to defend themselves based on their skin color for the first time.
I have realized in the wake of the violence in Charlottesville that homesteading in the inner city in my early thirties was the moment my consciousness awoke to the systemic racism that pervades our culture and our justice system. I lived with my children’s Godmother for a year during my divorce while she was building a Community Mediation Program off Greenmount Avenue in Baltimore City. www.mdmediation.org/centers She was the revolutionary, not me. I was just along for the ride, and needed a safe haven far away from my abusive marriage and my more abusive mother. My fight was not in the inner city, it was in the battleground of my own divorce. It is only looking back seventeen years later, that I wish I had done something, or even done anything at all. It is only now, that I wish I had understood and embraced the concept of white privilege while I was fighting for my mansion on the hill.
Would I have done things differently had I known? Would I still have been quiet and ignored a problem that was not directly damaging me or my lily white children? What would I have done had I known that my having to fight against false accusations for my children and the spoils of a marriage of excess were nothing compared to what thousands of women of color face every day? The lies lobbed at me were all handled by the high priced attorneys I could afford. My ex-husband and I were playing a game in a justice system that is defined as “he who has the most money wins.” Women of color fight every single day for their children, their lives, their freedom, in a justice system that is not blind to either race or income inequality.
My post baby boomer privileged generation has badly squandered the legacy left over to us from the revolutionary sixties. Like most of my GenX, I have just looked away from anything that didn’t fit in with my white snowflake vision of what the world should be. Sure, I marched every year on MLK day, trained and volunteered as a mediator, gave money to The Human Rights Commission. I dutifully held fundraisers for progressive candidates, and even served on boards of charities designed to help with income inequality. Yet I have always had the option to opt out of battle ready mode and scuttle back into the safety of my privileged white existence. I could always walk away saying, “Hey, I’ve done my part. I voted for the politically correct candidate. I’m not a racist.”
Everything I did was whitewashed with my own middle class guilt and predicated on always having an option to walk away. I never told my children that they might not be liked for the color of their skin. I never had to defend my right to be somewhere based on a racial profile. I never have been stopped because it looked like I was driving a stolen Mercedes. I never have been followed in a department store by someone who wasn’t on commission.
I am white.
I am the very definition of that privilege.
Now as I’ve reached the middle of my life, I realize I want to fight. I want to scream and yell and shout and holler and wave signs and protest with bullhorn and fist. I want to say now that not only do I understand what white privilege is, I also understand what is meant by Black Lives Matter. I want to tell other white people how offensive and dismissive it is to parry with ‘all lives matter.’ Yet since I am a white woman of very real and very definite privilege, I know that this will seem as pandering and completely understand it is not my place to be on the front lines. I still want to have conversations about race where I can absolutely say what I think to the white women in my community without them wondering if I have finally and truly gone off the deep end. I want to ‘whitesplain’ to white people who think that they have never experienced white privilege since they are poor or they had it rough. I am a white woman who was abused sexually and physically for most of her childhood. It FUCKING sucked, but it damn sure sucked less knowing that I would eventually have the resources to leave and also being able to pay for the twenty plus years of therapy I needed. I gnash my teeth when I hear BLM called a hate group, racially divisive, or equal in the hate speech to the alt right groups.
Frank Bruni of the New York Times wrote in his op-ed piece, ‘I’m a white man hear me out,’“ https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/12/opinion/sunday/identity-politics-white-men.html the only proper way for me to check my privilege is to realize that it blinds me to others struggles, and it should gag me during discussions about the right responses to them.”
But, Frank, if women like me don’t break into their country clubs and churches and ignite their next door neighbors with the fire of inequality in their slightly concave, Pilates toned bellies, then who will make sure that my generation is the last of our kind? I’m not saying I understand what it is like NOT to have white privilege, I just know that I DO have it. I know that even though I have had my own, very real, crosses to bear, there is nothing that I have not conquered more easily with very white skin. That white skin is the one thing that allows me to ‘whitesplain’ to other white people that white privilege is something so pervasive in our culture we don’t even realize that it is part of every single interaction, every single day.
Every single interaction, every single day.
That, indeed, is the conversation anyone of my color should be having about race.
Fuck, yes, it was easier for me. And I am so sorry that was true. How can we change that now? How do we create a bridge from my experience to yours that doesn’t start and end in anger? How do we have conversations about creating true and long lasting social justice? What is social justice? How do I help? How do I hurt? What can I do that will matter and make a difference? Should I shut up? Should I shout? Or should I hold your hand and let you know that I may not understand your pain, but I sure as hell am willing to listen? I know I am not the voice of the problem and cannot own it, but how do I help other white people understand the assumptions that we make around our whiteness?
The whole time I was in the South, I made a point of making deep eye contact with all the women of color walking towards me. I would smile, and hold their gaze and then think as hard as I could, “I’m with you, I’m with you, I AM WITH YOU.” A thousand watt smile, a thousand times shouting in my head, all the while holding their eyes locked into my own. My ability to make people smile at me is probably one of the few remarkable things about me.
It is my superpower.
In that week, waiting for the swath of totality to eclipse us, I had multiple intense conversations with women, not one conversation of which was about race, but every one of which were about race. We spoke of our children, we spoke of our men, and we spoke of our excitement about the coming eclipse. We spoke about nothing, and yet we spoke about everything. We spoke about of our lives in a visceral way that mattered, sharing small secrets and making surprisingly big statements out loud as only women can do with other women who are complete strangers. Not one conversation may have been about what our differences were, but every conversation contained the deep similarities of our lives which bound us together. As women we forged bonds based on our gender and motherhood. We forged bonds based on the fact that we were women.
All because of a smile.
My eldest daughter was invited to participate as a student representative in writing the new anti-discrimination policy for the Delaware Department of Education. When I listen to her speak, I hear the language of justice that I wish had existed long before now. She carefully crafts the words of her policy proposal to be inclusive. She truly believes that if she is not working for social change to ensure that black lives will matter, her life will have been wasted. When I hear her speak, I realize that no matter what I haven’t accomplished, what battles I have not fought or understood; this woman, this masterpiece whom I created in my womb and outside of it, is truly spectacular. If there is ever a chance for real change, it is wrapped in her beautiful mind and the others of her multi racial, non binary, generation. As a white person I should never be the one carrying the bullhorn who is shouting into the crowd. But I can be the one holding hands along the picket lines, feeding the children of ours who picked up the torch of social justice, smiling into the eyes of my sisters.
Essay by Holly Williams
The locus of my joy
There is nothing else quite like it in the world; those few moments of quiet between the time when my team and I say a prayer, and when we hear the words ‘all rise’ before the judge enters. In those moments, I feel how I think astronauts must feel when the countdown begins, how actors must feel when the house lights dim. We are simultaneously composed of nerves, reverence, joy, and panic. In these moments I think, what would I have become without it? In my early life, I had little power. Now there is purpose in my voice, my words, my actions. Before the judge enters, I remember why I do what I do.
During the recession, my family moved from Baltimore to rural Delaware. Baltimore was the locus of all my joy; it was my childhood. I thought the city, and its people could do me no harm. It was perfect in my eyes. In Delaware, I was a stranger in a strange land. It was in Delaware that I first learned the meaning of poverty and what food stamps were. It was where I learned that some children had no Baltimore in their mind to return to when things were hard: they had never known such a place.
I longed to go home.
I told my parents all the reasons I missed Baltimore, and they said I was canonizing its memory. It was true. It was rooted in my mind as a Camelot, a city upon a hill. Like most children, I was not cognizant of the suffering of others. I was ignorant about the scar of violence maring my town, the cross that its people bore.The older I got, the more of the world I was able to let in, and my memories increasingly faded into myths.
When I remember Baltimore, I don’t think of all my former joys. I do not think of my first childhood crush, how my nanny would braid my hair before school, or the dolphins in the Aquarium. Instead, I think of the moment I came home and heard of what had happened to Freddie Gray. I think of the moment I saw Baltimore burning on the TV. I think of how empty my hands were.
What could I do? What could I have done?
The truth is that thousands of places like Baltimore burn every day. They are places like Syria, Chicago, Flint, Libya, Wilmington, Atlanta. Before and after Freddie Gray, there have been thousands of men, women, and children killed. In watching people stand in solidarity, after what happened, I had a reckoning of what my destiny was supposed to be. As long as their lives did not matter, mine was wasted.
I made sure my hands were no longer empty.
I collaborated and used the 3D printer at my school to create a device that could clip onto a car visor and holds all necessary ID. It is labeled and fluorescent, and it contains a list of all of an individual’s rights if stopped by the police. Later, I revised anti-discrimination regulation for Delaware schools to make sure that the language of our schools is inclusive. I learned to mediate conflicts peacefully and to listen to the root of someone’s hardships and address their every grievance. Most importantly, I learned the burden of the law: how to uphold it and how to know when it has not been upheld.
These are all the reasons why I think of my home, now strongly anchored in Delaware, before our round in Mock Trial begins. Of course, this is all only practice, that is why it is called ‘Mock’ Trial. Every objection and every response is an opportunity to learn to be better. I have trained myself to speak for those who are not spoken for, to listen to those left unheard. I want to strive to do this across the world, my country, my state and my community.
Every day what we consider inalienable is indeed alienated. I want to ensure that it is not their government, not poverty, not anything that denies them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. So I choose the pursuit of justice.
Good morning Your Honor, members of the jury, my name is Holly Williams.